Golden opportunity

A safari in Zambia and Botswana? Time it right, and you can add mysterious moon-rainbows and other-worldly saltscapes to that 24-carat wildlife tick list, says Ian Belcher

 

It’s a night for wizardry and alchemy; a night when a mysterious apparition, first witnessed by Aristotle three centuries BC, materialises before my eyes in the coal-black sky. The spectral beam, linking the furious Zambezi River with the African heavens, arcs directly above the thunderous mile-wide cascade of Victoria Falls: an ethereal frame for a wonder of the natural world.

Like every other spectator in the small congregation, I’m transfixed. The silence and unblinking stares suggest an outbreak of mass hypnosis. Animals (big animals: elephants, buffaloes, giraffes) lurk among nearby jackalberry and mopane trees, but all eyes are locked on the exquisite refraction of moonlight in spray: a lunar rainbow.

For the first, but certainly not the last, time on my two-centre safari, combining Zambia’s Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park with Botswana’s Makgadikgadi salt pans, Africa’s wildlife isn’t the main draw. It provides a prolific, marvellously entertaining cast of extras, but the true A-list stars of this trip are the widescreen wilderness landscapes and vast canopy of sky. In southern Africa’s wildlife-watching heartland, I’ve found a safari that will blow your mind whether it’s your first time or your fifth – or even if animals aren’t a major passion.

Zambia’s authorities know that the moonbow – exactly the same as a rainbow, except the refracted light comes from the moon rather than the sun – is something special, so they only grant nighttime access to the falls three times a month: the night of the full moon and those immediately before and after. Local lodges are well versed on the lunar calendar and can make all the arrangements for you, so I arrive alongside a dribble of intrigued tourists in a sunset of blazing honey.

Darkness quickly smothers the poetry. Bats flit overhead and the wall of water thunders behind dense vegetation. The world feels eerie, malevolent and thrilling. At 6.30pm I reach the Eastern Cataract – a peachy spot with a view directly down the gorge – as a billion-watt moon levitates above the bush. Within minutes, a smoky shaft of light enters stage left, rising vertically from the Zambezi to the underlit span of Victoria Falls Bridge. The audience whispers rather than cheers.

The ghostly grey beam pulses intermittently as gusts of spray catch the light, gradually extending into the sky, before wilting half an hour later, into a graceful arch, as if the 20th Century Fox spotlight has run out of steam. Instead of a multicoloured daytime showstopper, it’s a subtle, captivating and – by 9pm, when the stage curtain descends – unforgettable drama.

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Microlight flying over the Zambezi River and Victoria Falls

While the moonbow coyly limits its appearances, Victoria Falls is always in the limelight: an intoxicating, frighteningly powerful force of nature. Major stars attract groupies, however. Lots of them. At one viewpoint I wait patiently for 19 Japanese tourists to snap identical shots before being knocked aside by a nun taking a selfie.

Neither Zambia nor Botswana are beset by the minibus crowds that can take the sheen off a safari in Kenya or South Africa, but – as a fan of glorious isolation – I’m delighted to find another way to rise above all other visitors. For a less congested, more heart-stopping panorama, I wake before the sun to clamber aboard a microlight flown by a former fighter pilot, Pascal Muguto. It’s simple to arrange – I just picked up one of the leaflets lying around in every hotel lobby – but it’s not for nervous passengers. At a cruising altitude of 457m (565m directly above the gorge), there’s nothing between my feet and the sun-baked African earth. I look down, cross myself and white-knuckle the microlight frame – flying on a wing and a prayer…

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Fear has its rewards, though: the view’s a corker. Not just the plunging water, dancing rainbow and atomic mushrooms of spray, but the zigzag of connected ravines – each left high and dry when the ravenous Zambezi devoured a vein of softer rock, opening a new channel. As we cross the central falls, Pascal casually points to a spot where, eight years ago, a guide grabbed a tourist who’d slipped towards the void. He saved her, only to slide over himself. There’s no dark drama today, just gentle early sunshine and serenity. I manage a nonchalant wave at the GoPro camera on the tip of the wing.

Back on solid land, or rather muscular water, I set off, sans crowds again, in pursuit of tigerfish, a Zambezi prey with the teeth of Nosferatu and the fervour of Gérard Depardieu at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Only one out of my hundreds of casts strikes gold, but that’s enough, igniting a blast of head-shaking, tail-walking, silver-scaled adrenaline. The antidote is a sundowner cruise. With grunting hippos, towering ilala palms and savagely chilled mocktail, it’s an essential ingredient in the Victoria Falls safari recipe.

I’ve found a safari that will blow your mind whether it’s your first time or your fifth – or even if animals aren’t a major passion

To be fair, so is the wildlife. Despite all the other diversions, it would be rude not to pay a visit. A dawn game drive generates a fabulous dinner party guest list, with giraffes that lick their own ears using 45cm-long tongues, vervet monkeys sporting lurid blue testicles, and marabou storks that pee on their own legs, painting a cooling white gloss. The seating plan may be tricky.

Elijah, my guide, offers a collective noun masterclass: a sounder of warthogs, a shrewdness of apes and a dazzle of zebras (also useful for footballers’ WAGs). We watch a prehistoric-looking monitor lizard sniffing through its forked tongue; study sparrow-weavers’ nests resembling Boris Johnson’s hair; and, most memorably, meet a five-tonne rogue elephant.

‘Last year he chased me for two kilometres,’ says Elijah, his eyes glued on the enormous bull. ‘I think he has psychological problems. He could easily flip a vehicle.’ We slowly reverse and hide behind a mopane thicket (Hemingway would turn in his grave) as the elephant and his alpha tusks amble past.

I daren’t tell the majestic beast he only has a bit part in my safari. Instead, I quietly slip away, head west alongside the Zambezi and cross into Botswana before flying 300km south to the Makgadikgadi salt flats (all arranged effortlessly through my tour operator). As our plane descends, it appears I haven’t just left Zambia, I’ve departed planet Earth. Enormous splatters of glinting white crystals are woven with ochre Kalahari grasslands on which ilala palms, baobab trees and spiky aloe vera lurk like low-budget Doctor Who monsters: an otherworldly scene dwarfed by a huge tureen of cyan sky.

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The spectacular Victoria Falls

While the moonbow coyly limits its appearances, Victoria Falls is always in the limelight: an intoxicating, frighteningly powerful force of nature

It’s hard to credit that, several millennia ago, this was the deepest darkest depths of a lake larger than Switzerland. Tectonic activity then emptied the basin, leaving the mineral-rich bed to bake and bleach under relentless sun. The two biggest salt pans, Nwetwe and Sua, now extend for 12,000 square kilometres: a landscape to bend the mind and stretch the retina. ‘Look at it,’ urges my guide, Joshua, as we stare towards a horizon where silvery-grey crust and tropical sky meld into a creamy haze. ‘Your eyes scream “enough please, no more”.’

Unsurprisingly, the Makgadikgadi has no ordinary safari lodge. Jack’s Camp, nuzzling the fringes of Sua Pan, blends explorer chic with vintage pointy-roofed expedition tents housing a mess room, tea station and library. Its antiques include a portable mahogany bar, battered travel trunks and cabinets displaying animal skulls and prehistoric flint tools, while the 10 ‘rooms’ boast four-posters and wooden thunderbox lavatory seats.

In the early evening, along with other guests – a gaggle of well-heeled Americans and Europeans – I straddle a quad bike, mummify my mouth and nose in a kikoy scarf and accelerate directly into the ‘great nothing’ of the Sua Pan, dust plume sparkling in the late sun.

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Baobabs trees under a starlit sky

As our stretched stick-man shadows fresco the surface salt, we’re instructed to find our own space. ‘Lie down,’ urges Joshua. ‘The silence is deafening. You can hear your own blood flowing through your veins.’

I can’t, actually. My stomach’s rumbling, but it’s still an epic, empty, magnificently still world. As I stand, the first stars and planets appear – heavenly flakes that rapidly develop into an astral blizzard. A burning grey smudge above the horizon is the zodiacal lights – debris from the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago.
It’s the thought-provoking cue for Jack’s Camp to announce a fireside feast, followed by a surprise al fresco while we eat. I hardly sleep – the mercury’s nudging zero – but who cares? Insomnia is rarely so rewarding.

Sua is a brutal environment – brine shrimps are its only living organism – but the surrounding semi-arid Kalahari grassland teems with life. Right now it hosts two thousand zebras, but within months, as the wet season brings temporary fecundity, around 50,000 more will arrive on their annual migratory loop through northern Botswana. The area becomes a mini Serengeti.

Certainly there’s more to this part of Africa than animals, but you’d be mad to come here and ignore them. Indeed, my evening game drive reveals a truly surreal bag of wildlife (what else would you expect in this Dalí-esque land?). Flocks of ostriches rub feathers with stiff-legged, spiky-headed secretary birds, while hares dubbed ‘African kangaroos’ bounce up and down with one eye open – a weirdly mesmerising sight as they reflect our headlamps’ beam. It’s an amuse-bouche for the Makgadikgadi’s meerkats. I arrive as eight emerge from a burrow in the morning chill, standing in line as the sun warms their black tummies. Thanks to Fattie – a conspicuously slim local villager who hangs out with them eight hours a day, 365 days a year – the mob are semi-habituated, unconcerned as I lie down inches away. 

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A ‘scout’ climbs onto my hip to scan for predators. I’ve reached peak Attenborough. The petite carnivores may look ridiculously cute, but the illusion is shattered over the next two hours as I follow them foraging for breakfast. When a meerkat scents scorpions or small lizards hiding underground, it digs frantically before using razor-sharp teeth and talons to rip apart the prey. Fattie’s mob is the Kalahari’s answer to Peaky Blinders.

Now I’ve compared the meerkat, I know this safari has bigger stars. Far bigger. I spend an intriguing last morning with San bushmen, some smoking hare droppings rolled in brandy-bush leaves. They show me edible plants, shoot arrows tipped with beetle-dung poison, and hold scorpions inside their mouths. Apparently, the San are immune to certain venom. It’s one way to find out, I guess.

As I watch the small group play Springbok v Lightning – an enthusiastic bushmen version of Rock-Paper-Scissors – I can’t help but notice the elders have ravines rather than wrinkles. What age are they? My question induces a long series of clicks, head nods and more clicks.

‘They are…’ replies my translator slowly, pausing for more clicks and nods. ‘They are… many years.’

‘Many?’

‘Yes, many. They’ve no idea.’ In the Makgadikgadi, age clearly isn’t just a number.

The modern world seems a distant concept. I’ve ended up in a big land under a big sky with little men, their hunter-gatherer culture every bit as mystical and enthralling as Victoria Falls’s sublime moonbow: final conclusive proof that Africa’s animals needn’t be the main draw. Safaris can be better. So much better.

 

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Credit: Ian Belcher / The Sunday Times Travel Magazine / News Licensing